Andrew and Fareed Zakaria have picked up on the same point I was making in my last column, which is that most conservative of Obama on foreign policy is hysterical and laughably weak. Andrew and Zakaria were focusing on reaction to Obama’s U.N. speech, which he had not yet given when I wrote the column, but their remarks apply just as well to the response to the missile defense decision or almost any other decision in the last eight months.
The only thing I can think of that conservative critics have had right is that the administration’s treatment of Honduras really has been deplorable. Mainstream conservatives are right that penalizing the transitional government and calling for Zelaya’s return to power have contributed to the current unrest there, but these objections gain no traction in part because they come from people who no longer have any credibility when it coms to foreign policy. They happen to have been right on one issue because they are reflexively opposing anything and everything Obama does, and it was inevitable that Obama was going to blunder at some point. There is also every reason to think that if Obama had taken a diametrically opposed position, embraced the Micheletti government and opposed Zelaya at every turn, we would have never heard the end of his “coddling” of coup leaders and his “betrayal” of democratic principles. The common theme in all of this criticism is that Obama must be weak and every decision he makes reflects that weakness, but these criticisms persuade no one because they are obviously, embarrassingly driven by partisan obsession and not substantive concerns about national security or America’s reputation abroad.
Where Andrew and Zakaria’s columns are likewise mostly unpersuasive is in their claim that Obama’s handling of foreign policy has already produced a number of successes. Andrew claims:
For the first time in two decades Israel does not have carte blanche from the White House to do whatever it wants in the West Bank.
We have seen the administration issue slightly sterner warnings to Israel on settlements and then proceed to do little or nothing when those warnings were blatantly ignored. As far as I can see, there have been no consequences for the continued building of settlements, and I don’t think there will be any. The stern talk on settlements was not much more than talk. If you are going to judge Obama’s handling of foreign policy by how effective he is in halting Israeli settlement-building, you will have to give him poor marks, but this is not a fair test. Officially, Washington has opposed settlement building in the West Bank all along, but this doesn’t mean anything because there is never a long-term price to be paid for ignoring Washington on this question. Obama is not going to extract that price. Were he to do so, he would provoke a hysteria that would make the last few months seem quiet and peaceful. He has more pressing concerns and won’t want to have his time and political capital consumed by a damaging fight on that issue.
Andrew and Zakaria are also attaching far too much importance to Russian statements on Iran. Zakaria called recent Kremlin statements a “striking shift,” but there has been no shift, and while Andrew is more skeptical he has cited Medvedev’s remark about inevitable sanctions as if it meant something. Like the administration they are praising, they are holding out unrealistic hopes of Russian cooperation on an issue where this cooperation is not going to be forthcoming. The administration and its supporters are setting themselves up for a fall, and they open themselves to the jeers of an otherwise hapless opposition that Moscow has played Obama for a fool. Russian cooperation may be forthcoming in other areas, and repairing relations with Moscow might yield some desirable results, but to measure the success of Obama’s Russia policy by Moscow’s willingness to do something it has no intention of doing is to rig the game in favor of the hawks who preach confrontation and aggression.
What conservative critics ignore and what Andrew only touches on towards the end is that the Bush administration oversaw setback after failure after defeat for American influence and power. Iran has become a far more influential regional power thanks to the folly of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, democracy fetishists helped to strengthen the hold of Hamas in Gaza to the detriment of Palestinians and Israelis, and Russophobes helped to encourage Saakashvili’s recklessness with talk of NATO membershop and provoked Russian ire with the recognition of Kosovo that led to the de facto permanent partition of an American ally. Hawks have routinely unleashed forces they do not understand, cannot control and are unwilling to contain, and they still have the gall to shout “Appeasement!” when someone else tries to repair some small measure of the damage they have done. Compared to this partial list of Bush’s major failures, Obama has done reasonably well simply by not persisting in some of his predecessor’s errors, but it is far too early to speak of success or payoff and it is a mistake to measure Obama’s success in the way that his supporters wish to do.